What’s In A Name?

First Names, 1.5 Million Years Ago

The story of the use of personal names is sketchy, like many things associated with the early linguistic capabilities of man.

The origin of language itself, about 1.5 million years ago, also is believed to mark the use of first names to distinguish one man from his neighbor, though experts are uncertain what these first names may have sounded like. They are sure only that man already had formed the most basic social group — the family — and required some verbal means of identifying every member to distinguish each one or to summon him or her.

The oldest surviving personal name is believed by archaeologists to be En-lil-ti, a word that appears on a Sumerian tablet dating from about 3300 BC that was discovered outside Baghdad in 1936. But some feel strongly that En-lil-ti was probably the name of a Sumerian deity. If they are correct, the honor of receiving the first personal name falls on N’armer, the Father of Men, Egypt’s first pharaoh, who dates back before 3000 BC.

Among various linguistic theories about the origins of names, the most valid states that people were named for physical characteristics. Put simply, a small man might be called The Short One, a light-complexioned woman The White One, and so on. From the early ritual of bestowing names in this manner followed a belief that powers and traits — even physical attributes like size and strength — could be invested in an individual because of the name given him or her. Naming an infant boy The Strong One, for example, was supposed to ensure his military success when he reached adulthood.

The descriptive quality of names became more specific as civilization advanced. The Romans alone gave such graphic names as Agrippa (born feet-first), Dexter (right-handed), Seneca (old), Cecil (dim-witted), Lucius (light) and Livy (bluish).

Names also began to exceed the limitations of physical attributes. These names, many of them connoting intangible qualities, flourished in many civilizations. The Hebrews, for example, used Beulah (married), Solomon (peaceable), Isaac (laughter), Ann (gracious) and David (beloved).

The next kind of nomenclature was that which formed the basis for surnames, those giving an indication of an individual’s occupation or location. George is Greek for “farmer,” Angelo for “messenger,” and Philip for “lover of horses;” Morgan in Welsh for “dweller by the sea.”

Surnames, 11th Century

The custom of family names did not really arise in Europe until patrician Venetian families began to hand down a second name from father to son in the 11th century. Burgeoning populations, increased travel by people of various nations and tribes, and improved communication had by then outstripped the supply of available first or Christian names.

Prior to the 11th century, a surname, if it was used at all, usually represented the name of a primitive clan or tribe. But even this infrequent use of surnames fell into disuse after the fall of the Roman Empire — and was not re-instituted for almost a thousand years.

The first three kinds of names were patronymics, like Michael (John’s son), which later evolved to Michael Johnson; trade names like Thomas the Baker, which ultimately developed into Thomas Baker; and location names, such as Charles-at-the-well, which eventually became Charles Atwell.

Other more colorful surnames eclipsed these with descriptions of personal traits or the habits of family ancestors. Drinkwater (in French “Boileau,” in Italian “Bevilacqua”) was designated a tee-totaling relative in the family tree. White (in French “Leblanc,” in Italian “Bianchi,” in German “Weiss,” and in Welsh “Gwyne”) usually meant that a family member had an extremely fine complexion or prematurely gray hair.

Despite the pressing need for family names and the increasing use of them the world over, as late as the 15th century many Englishmen — and virtually all Irishmen — were without surnames. In 1465, King Edward IV decreed that every Irishman should “take to him an English surname, of one town, as Sutton, Chester, Trym, Skryne, Crok, Kinsale; or color as whyte, black, brown; or art of science as smith or carpenter; or office as cook, butler; and that he and his issue shall use this name.

Each culture had unique ways of dispensing patronymic. In the 15th century, the Irish adopted the prefix “O” to indicate “descendant of”; it was generally used to describe the grandson of the original. Thus, the first O’Dwyer was Dwyer’s grandson. And David, son of Patrick, became David Fitzpatrick, fitz being the anglicized form of the Old French word for son, brought to England by the Normans.

The Italians frequently used di, as in di Giovanni, the Italian equivalent of Johnson. The Russians used vich and ich as patronymic suffixes; they also used “ov” or “ev,” so Petrov means “of the Peters,” and Ivanov, “of the Johns.” Often they would add the secondary patronymic ending of “sky” or “ski” to form Ivanovsky which means “of the nature of the descendants of John.” The name of the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Michailovich Dosteyevsky, means “Fyodor, son of Michael of the nature of the descendants of Dostoy” — and tells much more about his ancestry.

Other surnames came about merely by the addition of “s” to the father’s first name: Abrahams, Clements, Edwards, Franks, Hawkins, Jacobs, Phillips, Roberts, Samuels, and Waters. Still other modern surnames originated as matronymics: Nelson is “Nel’s son,” Alison is “Alice’s son,” and Babson is “Barbara’s son.” Seemingly, when surnames originated, few traces of male chauvinism historically were involved.

Many common Jewish surnames are of more recent origin. A people shuffled about from one nation to another during Medieval times, the Jews were forced by harsh laws to change their traditional patronyms. Beginning in the 19th century, many Jews adopted or were given the names of their town of birth. But others, according to the onomatologist, Elsdon Smith, “living in crowded, airless, and sunless ghettos, frequently adopted names which alluded to green woods and fields.” Hence today we have such Jewish names as Greenblatt (green leaf), Rosenblum (rose bloom), Lilienthal (lily valley) and Rosenthal (rose valley).

Earlier Jewish surnames arose during the Middle Ages, when German kings and dukes forced Jews to adopt Germanic names and to pay highly for them. Silverberg (mountain of silver) and Morgenstern (star of the morning) were among the most costly names; Fischer (fisherman), Kaufmann (merchant), and Schneider (tailor) were moderately priced. Since the practice was a system of taxation to fatten royal purses, authorities penalized Jewish peasants who could not afford a fancy name. They were forced to purchase inexpensive names that were blatant insults, such as Schmutz (dirt), and Eselkopf (ass head) — names that have since been dropped from use but still appear in old German records.

(from Bower’s Book of Beginning Language: Sanskrit to Surnames, pg. 62-64; 1984)